For the past seven years, Leigh Griffiths has believed Derek Riordan’s stunning goal against Hearts would never be bettered. Today, though, Riordan’s strike has been relegated to second in Griffiths’s list of all-time derby day favourites, replaced by his own moment of glory.
But Hibs-daft Griffiths revealed he feared an offside flag would rob him of the instant he’d waited all 21 years of his life for after slipping a close-range shot under the body of Hearts goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald.
Surprised by the amount of space he’d found in the heart of the Gorgie defence as he took team-mate David Wotherspoon’s pass, the on-loan Wolves star hesitated before starting his celebration, convinced referee Willie Collum’s whistle was certain to sound.
He said: “It wasn’t until I saw it on television afterwards I realised how far back Marius Zaliukas was and how far forward Andy Webster was. I was waiting for the whistle, but I turned to see the assistant [Martin Cryans] running back to the halfway line and I could start celebrating.
“I’ve watched it a couple of times since and, to be honest, I feel it was a good finish under pressure. It was a moment I’d dreamt of all my life. It didn’t matter where it came – Easter Road or Tynecastle – so long as I scored against them.
“The fact it was in front of the Hearts fans made it a bit more special. I knew a few people in the Hearts end and some of my family members are Hearts fans, so to be able to shut them up for a wee while was nice.
“Up until Sunday, Riordan’s goal at the other end in the derby of April 2005 when he put us 2-1 up, only for Webster to equalise with a header two minutes from time, was my favourite goal against Hearts. Now it’s my one from Sunday. I’ve got it recorded so if anyone hasn’t seen it I’ll happily show it to them.”
Griffiths might have equalised earlier, an angled shot crashing back off MacDonald’s right hand post with the goalkeeper beaten, but today he confessed had he scored it would have been a fluke.
He said: “To be honest, it was a cross. I was leaning back and the ball moved a bit and it came off the outside of my foot. I didn’t now where it went as I had to birl round to keep my balance, but I heard the crowd’s reaction and saw it come back out so I knew the goalie had either saved it or it had hit the post.
“I’d gladly have taken it, of course, but thankfully I got another chance and put it away.”
Griffiths’s goal couldn’t have been better timed, coming on the stroke of half-time to cancel out Andy Driver’s opener after the Hearts winger had capitalised on a dreadful mistake by ex-Tynecastle defender Alan Maybury and, he insisted, it was no more than Pat Fenlon’s side deserved given their performance over the opening 45 minutes.
While many were convinced Hibs were in for another hammering in the first derby since their 5-1 humiliation in the Scottish Cup final three months earlier, Fenlon’s players gave as good as they got, ending up bitterly disappointed at having to settle for a draw, a result which extended Hearts unbeaten run in this fixture to 12 matches.
Hearts manager John McGlynn accused his players of complacency, feeling some had believed they need only turn up to win, while the Jambo fans rolled up in party mood, equally sure they’d witness another hiding.
The sight of posters of Rudi Skacel celebrating his part in that Hampden demolition going up all around Edinburgh – including one immediately outside Easter Road’s Famous Five Stand – to promote Sky’s coverage of the new season only helped fuel that belief. But whatever failings might have been perceived on the other side of Edinburgh, Griffiths insisted there was no taking away the fact Hibs had given as good as they got and then a bit more.
He said: “I’ve watched the game back to see how much we dominated in the first half, and compared to games against them last season it was a massive improvement.
“Hearts fans have said they did not play as well, but they still had a few players who played in the cup final, MacDonald, Webster, Zaliukas, Driver, big name players, so to say they did not do so well is, I think, trying to kid themselves on.
“Hearts had played well against St Johnstone who have strengthened this summer, winning 2-0, although Saints had a man sent off early, but I think they didn’t play as well against us. And that’s because we didn’t let them play.
“Perhaps the Hearts players thought it would be a walkover while their fans were just coming along for a party. The manager [Fenlon] pretty much had to say just two words to us: ‘Five-one’ – although he did say a bit more than that.
“There were guys like myself, James McPake, Paul Hanlon and Lewis Stevenson who played in the final and we wanted to put on a performance for our fans. Of course, the cup final was always going to be mentioned by everyone, but this is a new season, a new start for the manager with new boys coming in to the squad.
“They guys who were here last season made sure they knew what it meant to those of us who were already here and together we put on a great performance. We had to give the fans something special after the Dundee United game when I think some of them were feeling we were going to have another season fighting relegation.
“We gave them a good first-half performance and I’d imagine they went away relatively happy knowing we should have beaten Hearts.
“It was disappointing to go behind when we were on top so it was a great feeling to score right on half-time. Had we gone in 1-0 down the manager would have had a different team talk to deliver. Unfortunately I don’t think we were as good after the interval. Had we been, I think we’d have gone on to win it.
“We still had a few chances. There was one when I turned Webster only to shoot wide, James McPake had a header just wide and MacDonald saved another one from him as well. So we had chances, but then you look back to last season when we were drawing 1-1 and lost two late goals, so you have to say that although we were disappointed not to win, it was something of an improvement.”
Fenlon believed Griffiths’s outstanding performance was partially due to the youngster “playing the game” rather than, as a big Hibs fan, the occasion and having had more than a few disciplinary problems last season, he revealed he’s determined to rid himself of the baggage that has brought.
He said: “The manager has told me to mature and I feel I have. The Hearts fans were giving me stick in the second minute when I went to take a corner and if I’d reacted I’d probably have got a booking but I just blocked it out.
“I perhaps took my celebration a bit too far, but I have James and Paul to thank for dragging me away and making me celebrate in front of the Hibs fans.”